BY STEVE WATKINS
Why do yoga? Easy. It makes you feel good. Greater flexibility, improved strength and circulation, better digestion, stress relief. The benefits of yoga are so well known that you can probably rattle them off even if you’ve never spent five minutes on a sticky mat.
In fact they’re so well known—those I just listed, and plenty more—that many people both active and non-active who aren’t practicing find themselves plagued by a vexing and powerful phenomenon: Yoga Guilt.
They know yoga’s good for them, they know they really should be doing it, they know that as they age they lose muscle mass and flexibility, and they know that regular yoga can help counteract both.
But they just don’t have the time. Or they hate how stiff they are and just know doing yoga is going to hurt. Or they’re sure they’re going to be embarrassed because they can’t even touch their toes. So they stay away.
These are people who sometimes avoid me on the street, since I’m known to be something of a yoga proselytizer. (At least I think that’s why.)
Part of the problem, of course, is that we’re such a culture of strivers—frustrated with ourselves if we can’t run fast, or far, or if we can’t do proper flip turns swimming laps. Or if we can’t bend as deeply or balance as effectively as we could when we were younger.
No matter how many times I remind yoga students that there’s benefit to yoga wherever they are in their practice—no matter how old they are, or in what kind of shape—they’re still checking one another out to see who’s acing the postures.
All of which is fine if it helps them find proper form, or if it inspires them to go deeper within themselves to find the strength they need, and the perseverance, and the calmness.
What’s even more important for them to find, as I’ve discovered for myself, is the ability to forgive themselves when they fall out of a balance pose, or need to take a break from the flow, or “vinyasa,” and go into a restorative child’s pose instead. Or when they just need to mutter, “The heck with this today,” and roll off their mats and go to the coffee shop instead.
As we say in yoga: It’s all good. And it’s all practice, no matter how “advanced” you are. And, yes, there’s benefit for you in yoga wherever you are in that practice.
CAN’T TOUCH YOUR TOES?
When I was little, I was so stiff they thought I had polio. Though I spent years happily training for endurance sports, one thing I couldn’t do was touch my toes. In fact I couldn’t make it much farther than my knees.
As fit as I was, when I decided to try an Ashtanga Yoga class several years ago, I sweated through those intensely athletic sessions, and spent quite a bit of time in my own child’s pose as I struggled to keep up.
I’ve been teaching yoga for years now. I still can’t put my feet behind my head—never could and never will. But through steady repetition and practice—dumb animal habit—I can touch my toes. And then some.
Yoga for me isn’t so much a practice now as it is a lifestyle. If we’re home watching TV, I’m on the floor doing seated and supine asanas. (“Supine” just means I’m doing poses while lying on my back; “asana” is the Sanskrit word for “yoga pose.”)
I’m that weird guy at the airport off in a corner waiting for my next flight, folded over at the waist, nose on knees, hands out past my feet, stretching my lower back and hamstrings, relieving the stiffness that comes from sitting in one position too long. And I’m that guy not only teaching yoga classes but joining others as well, because I’ve never done anyone’s yoga class, no matter what style or what level, that didn’t benefit me in some way.
A SENSE OF PEACE
Folks who’ve practiced yoga long enough will tell you: Physical benefits aside, yoga is about union—with others, but most importantly with yourself. Yoga, especially as you develop your “pranayama”—your synchronized breath—is about letting go of all those ways you manage to be at war within yourself, and maybe finding a sense of peace.
A recent study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine supports what yogis have known for centuries: that yoga reduces anxiety and improves mood.
The researchers compared two groups for 12 weeks, each assigned to either practice yoga or walk for 60 minutes three times a week. They did brain scans on the participants and found significantly greater improvements in anxiety and mood in the yoga group.
To get a little more technical on you, what yoga did for those in the study was significantly boost production of the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. Anti-anxiety medications work, in part, by lifting GABA levels. The study strongly suggests that yoga can do this, too.
All exercise helps, of course. There just seems to be something a little extra, and a little special, when it comes to yoga.
They’ve also discovered a cure for Yoga Guilt, by the way. You’ll never guess what it is.
Want to know more about yoga?
Steve Watkins is an author and former college professor who teaches power yoga at the YMCA in Stafford County and at Read All Over bookstore in Fredericksburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.